Portraits have a very long history. Since time immemorial, people have felt the need to not only present themselves (at their best, of course!), but also to pass their image on to future generations, especially before the advent of photography. Portraits used to be the domain of noblemen, royals and heads of state, but with a few notable exceptions. Coffin and wedding portraits, private and celebratory, faithful and idealized – there’s so many to talk about. Instead, in this article we are going to explore the type of portrait that conceals the model’s identity in a variety of different ways.
Let us start with a work of art that, it’s safe to say, is familiar to pretty much everyone: namely that of a smartly dressed gentleman whose face is obscured by… a green apple. This is, of course, The Son of Man by Rene Magritte. Many of us have stopped to wonder what the fruit is doing there and what this man’s face is really like. Rene Magritte believed that we never see what we are looking at in its entirety; every time there’s something missing. If we could somehow remove the apple from the man’s face, chances are we would be wondering what’s on his mind. Again, there would always be something beyond our grasp.
Joseph Lee is an artist for whom human face is a blank canvas that lends itself to be covered with colorful stains. In his works, the contours of the head are filled with impastos, a thick layer of paint that is typically applied with a spatula. His expressive portraits immediately catch the viewer’s eye, where a colorful mish-mash is like a mask that hides the real emotions of the person underneath.
Another example is the oeuvre of Ewa Juszkiewicz who’s inspired by historical portraits of women which she reinvents. The artist goes against the grain by disregarding the tradition of European painting as to the expected pose, attire and hairstyle in female portraits. Juszkiewicz hides the faces of noble ladies behind ethnic masks, a mountain of tangled fabrics or locks of hair, to create an extremely surreal effect. Although the model’s facial features are not visible, it is the approach to the subject that makes the portraits unique.
It’s now time to set out on a brief journey to a dark and slightly spooky land. Francis Bacon is an artist known for exposing characters in a strangely deformed and distorted fashion. His portraits look like masks from horror films or nightmare visions. The facial features sometimes resemble a kneaded dough, sometimes solid modeling clay and other times a blurry photograph. These treatments are intended to accentuate the sadness and alienation that often accompany people in their daily lives.
Last but not least, we have Gideon Rubin. Though not as spine-chilling as Bacon, his works certainly retain an element of eeriness. The characters in his paintings are devoid of facial features, resembling mannequins like the ones we come across in retail stores. Even though it may seem otherwise, this isn’t exactly to show us emotionless people. Their faces are supposed to be a blank canvas for the viewer. In other words, the portraits do not represent specific people, but are there for the audience to recognize their own reflection in the scene. In a way therefore, these portraits do not become a finished work until the viewer relives the memories from his own life upon seeing the moment in time captured on the canvas.
If anything, this subjectively picked collection is proof that portraits don’t necessarily have to be a faithful representation of the person being painted. It is as important to convey in the painting a specific mood and emotions emanating from the human image, as they can sometimes be more expressive than a person’s face!